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Sunday, May 16, 2004:

The perils of poor hearing. Or inattention. Or something. Yesterday, our daughter says to me, "Dad, Mom bought me a new crochet needle!" Somehow, I missed the "cro" syllable, leaving "chet needle," and after reconstructing the meaning in my head, I asked quizzically, "Mom bought you a Dick Cheney doll?!?"
Link 8:53 PM Home

Blank checks have a way of getting cashed. Continuing in his series of reports on Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh writes that the liberties taken by interrogators at Abu Ghraib have their roots in Rumsfeld's desire to empower people on the ground. In Afghanistan, for instance, a convoy couldn't be attacked when intelligence indicated Sheik Omar was in it. So Rumsfeld...

authorized the establishment of a highly secret program that was given blanket advance approval to kill or capture and, if possible, interrogate "high value" targets in the Bush Administration's war on terror. A special-access program, or SAP subject to the Defense Department's most stringent level of security was set up, with an office in a secure area of the Pentagon. The program would recruit operatives and acquire the necessary equipment, including aircraft, and would keep its activities under wraps. America's most successful intelligence operations during the Cold War had been saps, including the Navy's submarine penetration of underwater cables used by the Soviet high command and construction of the Air Force's stealth bomber. All the so-called "black" programs had one element in common: the Secretary of Defense, or his deputy, had to conclude that the normal military classification restraints did not provide enough security.

"Rumsfeld's goal was to get a capability in place to take on a high-value target a standup group to hit quickly," a former high-level intelligence official told me. "He got all the agencies together the C.I.A. and the N.S.A. to get pre-approval in place. Just say the code word and go." The operation had across-the-board approval from Rumsfeld and from Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser. President Bush was informed of the existence of the program, the former intelligence official said.

There's much more, of course, and well worth your reading.
Link 5:12 PM Home

Saturday, May 15, 2004:

More efficiency, please. Newly arrived in the mail (yesterday?) a check from Scotland, a VAT refund on purchases made there; the check is for the sum of £12.19. I can't tell if it's a government check or from some merchant servicer (it's payor is "Advantage Tax Free Shopping," somewhere in Edinburgh.) Here's the kicker: we were last in Scotland over a year and a half ago — August, 2002. Glad we didn't really need the money. Since the currency is a hassle, I'll probably just sign the check over to some charity like Oxfam.

UPDATE: I was emailed by another recipient of a check from Advantage Tax Free Shopping, who reported on a successful negotiation through email... Advantage Tax Free Shopping was willing to take back the check and credit the amount to their credit card, which overcomes all issues associated with the currency. Advantage Tax Free Shopping can be emailed at info "at sign" advatax dot com.
Link 5:00 PM Home

Abu Ghraib abuses aren't getting too much attention, if you think about it. I know that many people try to put them in perspective by comparing them to Nick Berg's execution — and even question why that isn't more of the news item — but maybe Berg's execution isn't a proper event to compare it to. Maybe we should look at the attention which Abu Ghraib has gotten, and compare it to the attention which U.S. police brutality cases get. I can't speak for what it's like in other cities, but when it happens here in New York, the Times seems to have a daily article on the case. (When the Abner Louima case happened, for instance, its horrific nature seemed beyond belief. Louima was abused on August 9, 1997; in the period from August 10 to September 9, just one month, he was mentioned in 79 different news articles in the New York Times alone. One event, in one night. He wasn't always the focus, but his abuse impacted the city in many ways.)

And when Rodney King was beaten in L.A., there was no shortage of news on the cable channels. And cases of alleged police brutality/misbehavior have received national coverage when they've happened in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Miami. You heard about Chicago in 1968, didn't you? Do you remember how long that was in the papers? And when civil rights marchers were set upon by police dogs and fire hoses, you heard about that, didn't you? Did those stories go away, or were they explored over days and weeks? Aren't the images etched into your mind?

To me, quantity of coverage of these events is a better comparison to Abu Ghraib, because, as Mark Kleiman has pointed out, it's US that's responsible. We can reform our own actions much sooner than Al Qaeda's, trust me. (For more on this topic, Human Rights Watch has a report on police brutality in the US, although it dates from 1998.)

UPDATE notice: since originally posted, this was updated (same day, at 3:54 PM) to include information on the number of New York Times news articles on Abner Louima in the month following his abuse.
Link 3:10 PM Home

In a heart-warming piece, Fred Kaplan has written that the President who campaigned on accountability (that would be Bush) needs to stop shirking the blame and come out about his own culpability.

It arises from being in the loop far earlier about Abu Ghraib abuses than was earlier claimed, as well as not getting Zarqawi as early as possible in order to reserve arguments for war. (Since the article is a wrap-up of other stories this week, these points may not be new to you. But Kaplan is a good writer to read.)
Link 9:56 AM Home

The poor analyses of media coverage of the Nick Berg story which I refer to below are really kind of shocking, and they demonstrate the risks we take with a free press. They also demonstrate that the answer to speech is more speech.

  • The initial failures were due to people looking at data for their own web sites and assuming it was representative of all that was happening on the Internet; major companies have seen their brand shares plummet by relying on their own internal viewpoints. The search engine reports which InstaPundit later posted supported what bloggers were seeing on their own sites, but it was an invalid assumption without that data.

  • The second problem was a failure to generate alternative hypotheses for why the search traffic was the way it was.

  • The third problem was an issue of what researchers call construct validity: does a measure really measure what you think it does? Or, in its nature as a surrogate for something else, is it picking up some kind of bias? This is my "Beyonce is not more important than Duke Ellington," in the attempt to interpret popularity as importance.

Now, there is no wizardry to this. These are basic research principles... I've seen a lot of other flawed analyses, too, but in order to support my argument quickly and then move on to my point, I'll just mention one. InstaPundit has occasionally claimed that his wife giving away electronic copies of her book for free has had no impact on sales of used physical copies. He makes this claim on the basis of the price of used copies at Amazon not plummeting. Yet he hasn't tracked whether or not any used copies have sold (which, as best I can tell, hadn't happened last time I looked). From this tiny market (not randomly selected) he generalizes to what might happen with free downloads in general. Not only is there an issue with whether or not his observation is random, but even if it were random, it's only one observation, not many. (If you will permit a statistical reference, he has "zero degrees of freedom".)

My big concern is that it's people like InstaPundit and Andrew Sullivan who frequently complain about media bias. You need rigorous thinking in order to support that claim. And based on their "we're the blogosphere!" joy about Nick Berg traffic, these are not rigorous thinkers. So please keep that in mind next time you're hearing their complaints. Why not read about something more thorough, and a genuine test? It's Michael Tomasky's review of the editorial content of classic liberal and conservative news outlets, which showed greater willingness at liberal outlets to think out of their tradition. Meaning, of course, that bias is greater on the right than on the left.
Link 9:43 AM Home

If you haven't been here since Friday noon-ish, I've posted a couple updates to yesterday morning's post on blog-traffic-based interpretations of the importance of Nick Berg's execution. (The cool thing, by the way, about doing my own pages by hand is that I can tell you the time and date of my updates — all part of integrity. Many other bloggers don't have that capability.) Anyway, here...
Link 9:22 AM Home

Friday, May 14, 2004:

Krauthammer makes an apples and oranges comparison,but wants you to think they're all apples, of course. Here's what he wrote in his Saturday column:

Democrats calling for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation invoke the principle of ministerial responsibility: a Cabinet secretary must take ultimate responsibility for what happens on his watch. Interesting idea. Where was it in 1993 when the attorney general of the United States ordered the attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, which ended in the deaths of 76 people?

Janet Reno went to Capitol Hill and said, "It was my decision, and I take responsibility." This was met with approving swoons and applause. Was she made to resign? No. And remember: This was over an action that did not just happen on her watch but that she ordered -- an action that resulted in the deaths of, among others, more than 20 children.

Did you know that the FBI was responsible for the deaths in Waco? I certainly didn't, and perhaps Mr. Krauthammer needs to lunch with Louis Freeh, FBI director at the time. For, there happens to be this commonly-held belief that the FBI was vindicated. Their actions did not cause the fire.

FBI Director Louis Freeh said Friday his agency has been vindicated by a special counsel's newly issued interim report clearing the government of wrongdoing in the Branch Davidian siege near Waco, Texas.

"The simple truth, as the FBI has maintained since April 19, 1993, has been unmistakingly confirmed again today," Freeh said.

"The FBI fired no shots on that day and the Davidians started the fires that ultimately engulfed the compound," he said.

Not enough? CNN has the interim report available as a PDF, and you can read it for yourself.

How short is Krauthammer's memory and how short does he think yours is? I'm going to write the Washington Post's Ombudsman and complain about this. Maybe you want to, also?

Corrections: Krauthammer's column was published Friday, not Saturday, and the FBI director during the Waco stand-off was William Sessions.
Link 11:51 PM Home

The United States gets it? MSNBC is reporting that controversial interrogation techniques are being banned in light of the scandal that's erupted in the last couple weeks.

The officials, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said "high-interest" detainees would no longer be subjected to sleep or sensory deprivation, forced to assume "stress positions" or eat unorthodox food, left in states of "environmental discomfort" or questioned in the presence of attack dogs.

Those tactics were on a list of approved interrogation techniques that lawmakers and human rights activists had questioned as being potential violations of the Geneva Conventions, a series of international treaties governing the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Only one tactic on the list will continue to be allowed, officials said isolating prisoners for more than 30 days at a time.

Why does it take scandal? And can't they even imagine scandal in advance?
Link 7:10 PM Home

While you were sleeping... The Patriot Act crept a little further. Yesterday's Washington Post reported that the ACLU was forced to revise a press release (one which was about how they had been prohibited from discussing a challenge to the Patriot Act).

...the ACLU was forced to remove two paragraphs from the release posted on its Web site, after the Justice Department complained that the group had violated court secrecy rules.

One paragraph described the type of information that FBI agents could request under the law, while another merely listed the briefing schedule in the case, according to court documents and the original news release.

I don't know about you, but I get the willies. Remember how the Patriot Act has been used to prosecute crimes having nothing to do with terrorism? And remember all those detainees being held in perpetuity in Guantanamo? Remember how, when a handful were sent home to Britain, the UK felt there was no reason to hold them and released them practically immediately?
Link 9:13 AM Home

Blog traffic measures the importance of an issue?!? Really? Some bloggers have noticed spikes in their traffic over the execution of Nick Berg, spikes which they never saw over Abu Ghraib prison abuses. For instance, Andrew Sullivan writes:

A BLOG JOLT: In the blogosphere, we are sometimes in tune with national moods. My gut tells me that the Nick Berg video has had much more psychic impact in this country than the Abu Ghraib horrors. I even notice some small evidence for this. Every political blog site has just seen an exponential jump in traffic - far more than anything that occurred during the Abu Ghraib unfolding. My traffic went through the roof yesterday, and, according to Alexa, so did everyone else's. People who have tuned the war out suddenly tuned the war in. They get it. Will the mainstream media?

...and Instapundit makes similar remarks...

But on the Internet, where users set the agenda, not Big Media editors and producers, it's different. As Jeff Quinton notes, Nick Berg is the story that people care about:

Right now the 10 phrases most searched for are:

nick berg video
nick berg
berg beheading
beheading video
nick berg beheading video
nick berg beheading
berg video
berg beheading video
"nick berg"
video nick berg

Well, I'm sorry, gang, it just doesn't work that way. Here's why:

  • These measures that people are talking about are based on traffic to their own sites. That is, they don't consider the traffic to other sites (such as what articles are being read at the New York Times). Traffic to their own sites is going to be a function of many factors, only one of which is whether or not people care more about an issue. Other factors include ranking on search engine pages (which is driven by how many times they use a phrase on their page, whether or not the term is in the title of the page [that blue ribbon at the top of your monitor], and how many other people link to what they've written) how well the issues are covered elsewhere, and so on. You can't look at your own statistics, solely, and draw a conclusion about the intrinsic importance of an issue.

    Has anyone thought to ask what's driving traffic at other sites, that is, sites outside their circle of friends?

    A better measure of this phenomenon will come from Google's Zeitgeist page, which talks about the relative rank of search terms. The most recent data, for the week ending May 10, ranks "iraqi prisoner photos" as number five among the top gaining search terms, and "lynndie england" at number ten on the same measure. ("Gaining" isn't a rank of searches so much as how much more popular than before.) May 10, of course, is before the Nick Berg story broke.

    Unfortunately, though, the Google "gaining" measure won't be of much help to compare relative popularity of an issue, because gain builds in time trending. Nick Berg was not an issue at all prior to his execution, so his execution could gain far more than Abu Ghraib on a week to week basis, and still be far less searched than Abu Ghraib related searches. (They have a ranking for news subjects on a monthly basis, but the most recent information is for March.) But really, this is the kind of larger view one needs before concluding that people are more interested in Nick Berg than in Abu Ghraib.

  • Even if it were true that the American people were more concerned about Nick Berg's execution than Abu Ghraib prison abuses (Sullivan's point about "They get it"), that doesn't mean that it's more important. Why? Because while importance is one concept, popularity of an issue is a different concept. One could easily look at these traffic spikes and say something else: rather than "this shows that the people get it," it shows how little the people get. That sounds elitist, I know, but right now Beyonce outsells Duke Ellington, too. Does anyone want to argue that Beyonce is more important than Duke Ellington? I'm sure she wouldn't.
  • Additional bullet as an update: The site which InstaPundit spoke about has the actual video of the execution, and it's eating up his bandwidth when everyone comes to the site to view it. Providing video is of course different from covering a story, another reason why using site traffic statistics can be deceptive. Many sites are covering the story, but few are providing the actual video, due either to bandwidth concerns, or standards, or any of many reasons. Similarly, wanting to watch a video is a different desire than wanting to learn or read about something; the blogger in question may merely be attracting people who can't see the video elsewhere... It's not a measure of how many people care about an issue. Were there video available of Abu Ghraib, at limited sites, it might be a fairer comparison than you get by looking at traffic spikes.

Sorry to rain on the parade, but when conclusions are bad they have to be adressed.

UPDATE: (Posted May 14 6:50 PM) InstaPundit now provides some genuine data based on search engine searches in general, not just individual traffic, and it does show that 'Nick Berg' is leading queries at Yahoo! and Lycos. Hats off to him for getting that information. It does temper some of my argument, but not all of it. The surge in search engine queries may be a result of user frustration over not being able to find what they want at the normal outlets (i.e., traditional media web sites). That is, in the case of Abu Ghraib, finding the information may have been relatively easy. This alone discounts the value of counting search engine queries as a measure of reader interest — though that would suggest that major media web sites are not catering to the interests of the market on this issue as well as they did on others. That being said, two points remain: even if it did indicate audience interest, rather than suggesting "the people get it," it could still be construed as how little the people get; and secondly, popularity isn't a true measure of importance, no matter how many CDs Beyonce is selling now.

UPDATE: (Saturday May 15, 9:10 AM) Here are others with parallel or similar views as mine: Mark Kleiman provides the one-syllable explanation; Tbogg's slap; Tom Tomorrow explains the differential coverage as being due to its ongoing, still-more-to-learn nature; Brian Linse points out that 50 Cents is more important than Iraq.
Link 8:53 AM Home

Thursday, May 13, 2004:

Just how brilliant was the super-efficient Iraq war plan developed by Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks? Uh, read this part of the Q&A from Rumsfeld's surprise visit to Iraq. Next?
Link 11:45 PM Home

Like us all, Josh Marshall has been too distracted by Abu Ghraib to do any follow-ups on a story he followed closely last year. But the Washington Post reports a plea bargain in a case regarding a Chinese spy named Katrina Leung. You hadn't heard about this? Of course not, it's in the fringe attention that blogs can devote that stories get covered at all. But if you click here and type 'leung' into the box you'll get a sampling of his superb coverage. Not sure if he'll sum it all up for you any time soon.
Link 10:23 PM Home

PLENTY of room to disagree... Over at Slate, columnist Mickey Kaus has weighed in on whether or not CBS erred as it aired the photos showing the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. (Scroll down to Goldberg vs. Kurtz.) Kaus concludes CBS was wrong (as did the military, I guess, since on Friday Rumsfeld seemed to list the presence of digital cameras as one of the problems). One glaring weakness with what Kaus has done, in drawing his conclusion, is that he's based his viewpoint on the sallies of two journalists, as if either of them puts either argument in its best expression. (How very unlike Aquinas; as I was taught it, he would rephrase his opponents arguments far better than they ever had, before decimating them. Such is the way of limiting later appeals.) For example, Kaus finds Howard Kurtz' arguments weak; one of them is this: "Stories have consequences. That's the way journalism works." The problem with using Kurtz as a basis is that, be patient with me on this, stories are already an abstraction of events. It's not stories which have consequences (this is not a pipe!), but events which have consequences. To even think for a moment of blaming "stories" frames the question incorrectly; it's the events which are the issue, not the story. Kaus's effort to frame this in terms of a story seem weak to me. The story is not the story, the events are the story. And that story — the events — are a huge issue; based on what we're reading about how long ago the US and the UK were informed about these horrendously slow reactions and poor administration, events weren't being reacted to. And if it cost Nick Berg his life, I'm sorry, but I'm not convinced there wouldn't have been some other pretext to end his life down the road. It's not like Al Qaeda did any negotiating on 9/11. For anyone to suggest that Berg's life was lost over Abu Ghraib is abysmally shortsighted and unrealistic.

Now, an extension of that belief, which I accept, is that Berg's execution should have no impact on what we do in Iraq.
Link 9:30 PM

Now playing, the Trash Can Sinatras. Specifically, their EP 'Weightlifting,' consisting of three new studio tracks plus eleven recorded in a concert in Paris. (You can get it here through Amazon. Or you can get it for $1.50 less through the band's site. I don't get any commission from the band's site, so remember me later, please?) Ab and I first heard of the Trash Can Sinatras before 'Obscurity Knocks' was released, or even announced: one of the cable comedy channels which merged into Comedy Central had a show focusing on Edinburgh's Alternative Fringe Festival, and the curly-headed host — whose name I can't remember, but he's gone on to commercials for Toyota and an online lending bank — taped them singing 'Obscurity Knocks' on the steps of the Edinburgh Portrait Gallery. We were in love with Edinburgh then (maybe still are) and the show stuck in our heads, plus the Trash Can Sinatras. Now only the TCS remain in our memory of that show. They've only had two albums released here in the US, and we've enjoyed them both (as well as their third album, which a friend brought us back from the UK). I guess the best way to characterize what's on this EP is as interesting adult contemporary; what's here wouldn't be considered as 'hard rock,' but it's far more interesting than what gets called 'easy listening.' Good harmonies, nice lyrics, and not aggravating in anyway. When we were driving through California a month ago, on unfamiliar highways, it hit the spot, and continues to do so now. The studio cuts make me anxious for the ultimate studio album, they really do. And while the eleven live cuts don't include 'Obscurity Knocks,' that's not a real problem, it's a good folk rock set nonetheless.
Link 8:46 PM Home

The 'embattled' Defense Secretary. This phrase is coming up so often, I wonder if it's going to soon turn into another TLA? (You know, one of those three-letter abbreviations; one cannot mention "TLA" without pointing out, as someone pointed out to me, that the beauty of "TLA" is that it, itself, is a TLA.) Like WMD — a phrase used so often that people get bored with thinking of it in its full meaning, so it hides under the abbreviation. But Google currently lists 4,670 web pages with the phrase "embattled defense secretary," and a similar number with the British 'defence' spelling (though they may overlap).

Now, I happen to think that resorting to cliches is too often associated with lazy thinking... Which means you have to wonder if the journalist is capturing enough of the ideas for the article. So are there other words or phrases?

First, let's look at the definition (in which it's meant here), "beset with attackers, criticism, or controversy." Here 'beset' means everything but studded with jewels, of course. Importantly, there is no presumption of innocence in 'embattled,' which is a good start.

Synonym time now. 'Embattled' is a pretty good word, but in the interest of preserving its richness aren't there other ideas worth introduction?

  • Beleaguered
  • Heavily scrutinized (less violent)
  • Suspect
  • Under fire
  • Under siege
  • In the crosshairs
  • Politically vulnerable
  • Harried

This is a list I came up with, without too much effort (hint to journalists, you should be better at this), and without using conclusive language like "undefendable" or "slowly twisting." Seriously, can paid writers please try harder?
Link 4:34 PM Home

Groups like — that do issue oriented advertising independent of political candidates — will not be restricted in their spending. Not for three months, at least.
Link 2:40 PM Home

The Bush Administration is like a woman's preaching?

"The Bush administration's doing something positive for the environment is like a dog walking on its hind legs," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Air Trust, paraphrasing English author Samuel Johnson. "It may not be great, but you're surprised it's happening at all."

Johnson was commenting not only on the poor quality, but on cutting women slack as they make their initial efforts. I don't think we can say that about the Bush administration: this is not a case where they've been held back by society's gender expectations and a resultant inattention to education. So be grateful, Mr. O'Donnell, but not too grateful.
Link 11:38 AM Home

Does Scott McClellan really think he fools anyone with his gratuitous side comments? This, from yesterday's White House press briefing:

Q The vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Lee Hamilton, wants the commission to interview some of the top al Qaeda people now in U.S. custody. Will the White House allow that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, one, I think I've always said from this podium that we work very closely with the 9/11 Commission to make sure that they have all the information, or have access to all the information they need to do their job. And there are a number of different ways that we can provide the commission with access to the information they need to do their job, because we want to make sure the commission is able to provide the American people with a comprehensive and thorough report, and that we can look at those recommendations that they make and act on those recommendations moving forward. (Emphasis mine.)

Worked closely to provide? Let's see, the White House resisted the forming of the commission; named Henry Kissinger to head it (riddled with conflicting interests, he wouldn't have been anyone's candidate to be a reformer); resisted letting Condoleezza Rice testify; bargained to have the President and Vice President testify together "in order to see how they work together" (uh, if that was a priority, I think the commission would have thought of that), and without any stenographers present; forced commission members to review documentation without making any notes they could carry with them — yet selectively pursued the declassification of information which would make the White House look better... Does any major news organization report that the White House has a cooperative spirit? Don't comments like this really only work to distance the White House even further from reality?
Link 10:53 AM Home

Wondering what happened to the boom promised from tax cuts? I suspect that much of the money is being transferred among those who got the cuts in the first place, with little trickling down to the poor and needy. For instance, an article in the LA Times on the different varieties of wild salmon. At $15+ a pound, I can't see many Americans picking it up. (It's an informative article, though, if you're in a position to use the information.) Or perhaps an article in today's New York Times on an up-and-coming generation of antique/art collectors (teens and younger, some of whom are bidding on art objects that go for hundreds of thousands of dollars). One parent of a young collector insists that he tries to play down the financial aspects of antique accumulation when talking with his 6-year old son.

"Nonetheless, Mr. Keno can't help boasting of Brandon's purchase last summer of a marble board, circa 1850, for his marble collection. 'He got a really good deal," Mr. Keno said. "It was walnut or mahogany.'"

So, Dude, since my grandchildren will be paying for these tax cuts, these few new jobs had better be here to stay, with more to come. (And I'd appreciate it if you could prove they are related to the tax cuts, by the way.)
Link 9:23 AM Home

Road Trip! Let's go to Iraq! So Donald Rumsfeld is now in Iraq, making a surprise visit. This is in the midst of scandal, of course, a scandal which wasn't helped when famously-accused Lynndie England said she'd been ordered to pose in those degrading photos, contradicting testimony from Major General Antonio Taguba ("found no specific instances of superiors ordering guards to mistreat inmates in the ways recorded in the pictures").

Are you sensitive to a trend here, in going to Iraq to "show support"? Recall that when Bush made his surprise visit to the troops last Thanksgiving...

The whirlwind trip came amid persistent insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq -- and less than a week after a cargo plane was struck by a missile and forced to land at the Baghdad airport.

And Colin Powell did this, too :

Mr Powell's visit comes amid a fresh wave of violence in the country.

On Thursday, a car bomb killed at least five people in Basra. A day earlier, at least seven people were killed in a blast at a Baghdad hotel used mostly by foreigners.

It also happens at lower levels: Paul Wolfowitz made an unannounced visit the month before Bush — although, no offense, but one wouldn't expect as big a bounce in the polls from a Wolfowitz visitation, due solely to rank and prominence.

During a difficult period Bush recommended a new variety of tea leaves, that bombings were an example of how good it was going because the bombings demonstrated the desperation of those who were losing power. Maybe we now have a new set of tea leaves, in the surprise trips to Iraq.
Link 8:53 AM Home

Wednesday, May 12, 2004:

I may be wrong about the resilience of Rumsfeld regarding staying on as secretary of defense. The tea leaves are tough to read, but I had figured that a resignation would imply mistakes, and therefore wouldn't happen. But the New York Times has posted an article tonight which indicates that there is considerable indecision, that it's an active issue still. By and large the article suggests that he's resolute, and finding solace in his normal routine; yet it says he's not numb to the implications of the scandal.

People close to Mr. Rumsfeld, who was chief of staff in the Ford White House in the aftermath of Watergate, said that he knew well how to handle crises in government, but that this one had touched an especially sensitive nerve. "He's deeply affected by this, there's no question, on every level," said the photojournalist David Hume Kennerly, who has known Mr. Rumsfeld since Mr. Kennerly was President Gerald R. Ford's White House photographer. "But he's not a buck-passer, he doesn't blame people for stuff. He's handling this the way he's handled every difficult situation ever."

I wonder if it wasn't made worse for him by Berg's execution.
Link 10:48 PM

Apologies to anyone who came through here earlier tonight and waited forever (literally forever) for the picture at the top to load. I was experimenting with another host for the images, and far too often the image just wasn't loading. Sorry!
Link 10:19 PM

Wellspring of support for Rumsfeld? For now, Bush couldn't ask Rumsfeld to resign without risking his own reputation: it would be equivalent to admitting that our situation in Iraq requires strong measures not just on the ground, but also in Washington. I don't see Bush doing that, which is why I wasn't surprised by his strong endorsement of Rumsfeld on Monday. (And it's not the first time he's come out with support for an embattled advisor; to wit, his support for Condi Rice in spite of her allowing the famous sixteen words to creep into the 2003 State of the Union address: "Bush aides have made clear that Rice's stature is undiminished in the president's eyes." And who could forget the strong support Bush has shown for Tenet over the years?) Face it, Bush will not admit to mistakes, no way no how.

The ripple effects of Bush's Rumsfeld endorsement are being seen in the Senate, according to The Hill. Republican Senators are following the party line, and it's understandable: why make your leader's inability to admit mistakes any more obvious than it is? Still, it would be nice to hear something more contemplative than this quote from Senator Jeff Sessions:

"The president's strong support for Rumsfeld is the final word on the subject," Sessions added. "I don't think anybody in the middle of a war is going to tell the president this magnificent secretary of defense should be resigning."

"This magnificent secretary of defense." Hmmm. Readers, please check your heads at the door. Thank you.
Link 11:05 AM

UFOs again, but this time a country's military claims it. Back on March 5, Mexican Air Force pilots saw — and filmed — air vehicles it couldn't identify. Campeche, where it occurred, borders Guatemala. A Canadian "space observer" says the report is nothing special, however.
Link 10:23 AM

Tuesday, May 11, 2004:

The horrible execution of Nick Berg, played out on an Islamic militant web site is a despicable act of brutality. So far as I've read, everything which some of our MPs are accused of having done in Abu Ghraib prison pales in comparison... and these terrorists have to be brought to justice. It's just sickening.

But let's not allow ourselves to become complacent because our alleged abuses aren't as brutal as what these militants did. That would be like an alcoholic ignoring his disease because he has a brother whose behaviors are far worse. If there's an opportunity for correction, taking a relative viewpoint doesn't help.

Of course I'm also really angry about the idea that our scandal will be used as a lever for recruitment. Kudos to the liberals who imagined all this coming to pass; I just wish you were wrong, and I wish your patriotism had never been maligned.
Link 7:42 PM

Being out of the loop is a real pain. Seriously. Like, imagine you work for a division of the US National Security Administration, and you want to read a copy of the Taguba report on the Abu Ghraib prison abuses? You can't just go and ask for a copy, because someone at the Department of Defense sent you an email telling you you're not allowed to read it. So, you go to John McCrory's web site, of course. Problem: you forgot to use your high security fancy IP address scrambler, and now everyone knows that the NSA is going to his web site to get a document you should be able to get internally.
Link 5:43 PM

"In America" comes out on DVD today, and not having seen the DVD, I can't comment on it, but here's what I wrote last December after seeing the movie:

It cut through me like a knife. Yesterday Ab and I saw In America, Jim Sheridan's tale of a family of Irish immigrants in New York of the 1990's. Wow, I think I cried in the first 5 minutes over the optimism when they hit NYC with the Lovin' Spoonful's "Do You Believe In Magic?" blaring on the soundtrack. It captured all the optimism and excitement I felt when I came here in 1982. Quickly the mood shifted, and I was filled with a constant sense of foreboding as they moved into a rundown apartment building filled with various forms of riffraff, and one constantly screaming neighbor. There were so many parts where I felt, uh oh, this is not going to work out, but the family muddled through, and there were several points where I cried buckets. The sister playing the 10 and 6 year old daughters were great, and the older sister's character showed such emotional depth, understanding her parents' grief all too well. Apparently 90% of the story is true. You should really put this on your list, it's a great alternative to the Middle Earth war movie.

I'm not the only person who fell in love with this movie, by the way. Bob Somerby (the Daily Howler) is hinting at his affection today. Oh, gee, what should you do?
Link 4:39 PM

Respecting the fallen. The Palm Beach Post, today, has a suite of photos taken from the Monday funeral of Navy reservist Robert Jenkins. (I don't know how long the link will work — its URL looks like it's not stable — so through their web site I emailed myself a link which might be more stable. But I don't guarantee (link became obsolete and has been removed), so try and click it today.) These photos (there are two) show nothing but complete respect on the faces of everyone there, and I hope that the Bush administration will reconsider its policies regarding photographs of our fallen soldiers. They sacrificed a lot, and to hide them in death seems like dishonor to me.
Link 12:59 PM

"Failure of leadership, lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision." That's the take of Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba, who wrote the internal report on abuses at Abu Ghraib. Is Rumsfeld dead meat yet?
Link 12:19 PM

"Sort of like what you would imagine plaster would taste like. Salted plaster ... with a vitamin-like aftertaste." Ah, low-carb substitute foods are being reacted to over at Salon. (Watch their ad first.) Many low-carbers forget the oneness of high-carb food: mashed potatoes taste like mashed potatoes because they are mashed potatoes. Pureed cauliflower, with cheeses and herbs and butter and so on, will never taste like mashed potatoes — although it will taste like great pureed cauliflower. And as for the commercial products discussed in the review, we're talking about further fakery which never strikes me as even worth pursuing.

I can agree with enjoying pureed cauliflower for what it is, that's fine. And there are plenty of replacements you can have which will bring your carb count down, like barley or chana dal instead of rice. And I can see why people who are in their first low carb steps get the shakes while they do without pasta. But c'mon, do your exercise, work through the initial stages, and maybe then you can have just a little pasta to cure your craving. A small side dish worth, for instance: a "serving" of pasta has about 40 grams of "net carbs" (carbohydrate grams minus fiber grams), but since that's for 2 ounces (about 57 grams) is there any reason you couldn't have a side of about a third of that? Just as a side?

I can't be the only person who knows that the best low carb foods aren't forced into being low carb, they just are. Lindt has a dark chocolate bar that's labeled as being 85% cocoa; it works out to being low carb because of its low sugar quantity, and will cure your chocolate craving. And it costs less and tastes better than the Atkins treats. And then there are these wonderful Venco licorices I have — they aren't to most Americans' tastes, but I like the dropbriljantjes variety, and they are pretty low carb too, by merit of their low sweetness.
Link 11:16 AM

I've posted repeatedly (here, for instance) that the issues in Abu Ghraib prison abuses probably have something to do with social psychology. Last night Aaron Brown had someone on his show who had conducted a psychology experiment back in the 1970s which could have served as a blueprint for what we're learning now. (Look for ZIMBARDO in the transcript.)

Well, we had set up a prison to run for two weeks and I had to terminate it after six days because it was out of control. What's really critical and I think the parallel with the Iraqi prison is that we knew that going into the prison our situation, we had selected boys who were normal and healthy in every way and we randomly assigned them to be prisoners and guards and we put them in so we had good apples to begin with.

We put them in this bad barrel of prison and what came out were corrupted young men. In our prison the parallels were our guards stripped the prisoners naked, put bags over their heads, exactly as in Abu Ghraib, enforced sleep deprivation.

These are things the guards thought of on their own, had them clean toilet bowls out with the bare hands and it was a gradual process. Each day it got worse and worse, so each day was a platform on which they built the creative evil of new things to do the next day.

Zimbardo describes not only the way in which abuses in his laboratory escalated, but also the processes which led to dehumanization:

BROWN: Is it necessary that, I guess it's not based on the study, that the guards see the prisoners as less than human or that they are dehumanized in some way?

ZIMBARDO: That happens automatically, yes. You can't do this if you see these as college students. You have to see it as dangerous prisoners. In fact, in our prison the guards didn't allow the prisoners to bathe, so they smelled badly.

BROWN: Yes. ZIMBARDO: They didn't allow them to go to the toilet. They had buckets in their cells so they urinated, defecated in this so the whole place smelled terrible and the guards began to think of the prisoners as animals, exactly as in the Iraqi prison where some of the guards reputedly said look at these animals. Look at the terrible things they're doing.

If you can, read the whole exchange, because a number of potentially-relevant issues such as social modeling, group leadership, the initial, basic goodness of his subjects are all discussed. These phenomena may be relevant to an individual's defense — the command was negligent in creating situations like this — but also in terms of straightening the situation out so it doesn't happen again. I'm not comfortable with finding innocence in the MPs yet, but we are supposed to presume innocence until proven guilty.
Link 9:38 AM

Monday, May 10, 2004:

The abuses were actually widespread, according to a report in the Washington Post.

U.S.-led forces routinely rounded up Iraqis and then denied or restricted their rights under the Geneva Conventions during months of confinement, including legal representation and family visits, the same sources said.

In a report issued in February, the Red Cross stated that some military intelligence officers estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of "the persons deprived of their liberty in Iraq had been arrested by mistake." Of the 43,000 Iraqis who have been imprisoned at some point during the occupation, only about 600 have been referred to Iraqi authorities for prosecution, according to U.S. officials.

The Red Cross study, posted Monday on the Wall Street Journal's Web site, concludes that the arrest and detention practices employed by U.S.-led forces in Iraq "are prohibited under International Humanitarian Law."

So we now have our own war criminals, in the view of one of the world's most respected international organizations. Rumsfeld should have resigned today; even if he thinks he's effective, someone else would be more effective. Perhaps the problems is who he thinks might replace him: I wouldn't say every potential replacement would be more effective, and if Bush were to be reliant on the advice of people like Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice, look out.
Link 10:00 PM

Warned a YEAR ago? Amnesty International says it warned the UK last May "that prisoners had been tortured and one killed."
Link 10:34 AM

The social psychological aspects of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. In a post a week ago, I speculated:

I can't help but imagine that these abuses occurred because the participants lost touch with their mores; isolated from the broader population, I imagine that group reinforcement developed where extreme behaviors were demonstrated in order to win approval... Kind of like the dialog you see in odd corners of the Internet (like, for instance) where people put on masks before participating in dialogs and egg each other on with the norm for "acceptable behavior" getting so warped that it's no longer recognizable by the broader population.

There is some confirmation of this. An MP says photos were widely shared:

Pictures of abuse and humiliation of Iraqis, taken with digital cameras, were burned onto CDs that circulated widely among prison personnel, said Sindar, 25. Peeks could be had in the chow hall.

"It was like a commodity," Sindar explained. "Whatever pictures you had, whoever had the most foul picture out there, everyone wanted to see what it was."

The enthusiasm in sharing photos surely led to reinforcement of the extremes; and as we all know, behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated. The standards had to shift under these circumstances; competition for attention must have developed — these behaviors are natural (allbeit in an unnatural, unacceptable form of expression).
Link 9:19 AM

Sunday, May 9, 2004:

I'm not the first parent to marvel at the technical facility of their offspring. And my marveling isn't new, either: years ago, the Kid Unit made a wonderful image in Adobe Illustrator that was brimming with exploration and joy. But when I re-charged my cell phone tonight (they're new in our family; why will have to wait for another post), and the phone still seemed dead, why did it take a ten year old to explain it to the 47 year old who pays the bills? Doesn't something here scream out, "bad marketing"?
Link 11:49 PM

Weird. Two Berkeley Carroll parents meet in cyberspace over a stairwell. (You have to read the "leave a comment" section.)
Link 9:31 PM

Ain't this special? Pentagon staff were told to not read the classified Taguba report (the one detailing Abu Ghraib abuses)... And the report shouldn't even have been classified?
Link 9:02 PM

Tough to recall a better purchase... In the CD player right now is Gov't Mule's The Deepest End, a set of 2 CDs (for two and a half hours total) plus DVD (about 3 hours) taken from a 2003 concert in New Orleans where the core group was supported by a series of guest musicians; the variety of musicians led to a varied set list, one which included not only many of their own songs but tunes like Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon," some Black Sabbath, some Prince, some Van Morrison, and so on. I only started to feel curious about this group after seeing the Allman Brothers' DVD Live at the Beacon; the leader of Gov't Mule also plays lead guitar for the Allman Brothers, and his virtuosity was readily apparent.

But the Gov't Mule set is wonderful, and there is a very human, funny moment towards the end of the six hour endeavor, when leader Warren Haynes has to play a completely unplanned guitar solo while someone downloads some lyrics for him off the Internet. It's all well-recorded and well-shot. Guest performers include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Bela Fleck, Jack Casady, Rob Wasserman, David Hidalgo, Bernie Worrell... I think you should buy it.
Link 8:41 PM

Are we a nation of suckers? I was going to comment mostly on an MSNBC article dealing with America's failure to react to higher gasoline prices (drive less, trade in gas-guzzling SUVs, and so on), and wondered if my planned headline here was too harsh. But then I remembered how many Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11; how John Kerry fails to chip away at Bush support in spite of the horrendous month we've seen in Iraq; how many Americans voted for Bush in 2000; how many, post Florida, talked about how Gore would say anything in order to get elected... Maybe we are.
Link 3:59 PM

I'm not sure if anything here will add to what you're reading already about Abu Ghraib, so rather than talk at length about any specific development and think it will add to your understanding, I'll just point to a variety of links, highlighting their content. OK with you?

  • Iraqi prison abuses have cousins here in the US (New York Times, Saturday 8 May). In fact, "the man who directed the reopening of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year and trained the guards there resigned under pressure as director of the Utah Department of Corrections in 1997 after an inmate died while shackled to a restraining chair for 16 hours. The inmate, who suffered from schizophrenia, was kept naked the whole time."
  • Don't be confident that abuses were limited to Abu Ghraib. A US citizen who was detained at another prison in Iraq saw similar abuses going on. (Knight-Ridder, Saturday 8 May)
  • The first court martial has been set; the accused is a Pennsylvania MP named Jeremy Sivits. Reports suggest that the command was asking too much of its soldiers: "The Army trained Sivits as a truck mechanic, not as a prison guard, his father said. U.S. officials have acknowledged problems with training and leadership among the MPs at the prison." (Associated Press, many newspapers; Sunday 9 May.)
  • In the first of a three part series, the Washington Post describes the disorder and lack of discipline at Abu Ghraib: "Precisely how many prisoners were being held at Abu Ghraib was anyone's guess. Roll calls were spotty. Escapes were commonplace. Prison logs were replete with flippant and unprofessional remarks. MPs were occasionally out of uniform, and some were out of control. Discipline was breaking down. So was the chain of command." (Washington Post, Sunday 9 May)
  • An unnamed senior general in the Pentagon says we're on our way to defeat in Iraq, and fingers Rumsfeld and his advisors as the problem. "The current OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] refused to listen or adhere to military advice..." (CBS, Sunday 9 May)
  • The Red Cross warned Britain of abuses as early as February (CNN, Sunday 9 May).
  • Detailed recollections of one case of British abuse can be found here. "British soldiers 'put a rope on his neck,' Muhaned said. 'He was lying on the ground and they were dragging him by the neck. A bunch of soldiers were kicking him. Poor Baha.'" (LA Times, Sunday 9 May).
  • There's no shortage of internal support for embattled Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "Best ever," said Dick Cheney (Los Angeles Times, Sunday 9 May); "The president strongly supports Donald Rumsfeld and so do his colleagues, and I strongly support him," said Condoleezza Rice (NY Times, Sunday 9 May).
  • In an opinion piece, Fareed Zakaria sees a continuing chain of unaccountability. "As far as I can tell, taking responsibility these days means nothing more than saying the magic words 'I take responsibility.' ... The only people who have been fired or cashiered in this administration are men like Gen. Eric Shinseki, Paul O'Neill and Larry Lindsey, who spoke inconvenient truths." (Newsweek, Sunday 9 May)
  • Support for the accused remains strong in one hometown (Washington Post, Sunday 9 May).

I'm sure there's more out there... Cursor is good for this kind of clipping, too.
Link 3:27 PM

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